What Does Putin Want?
After eight years of irregular war in eastern Ukraine, why is Russia now preparing its military for what could be a massive new offensive? Why has Vladimir Putin chosen this moment to threaten escalation, and what is the likelihood he will stand down? War is an instrument of policy, and, to avert it—or win it—it is always important to ask what the enemy’s policy objectives are. Here are five plausible explanations for Putin’s recent behavior.
1. Putin is bluffing.
One possibility is that Putin won’t invade Ukraine because he’s not actually prepared to fight the war he’s threatening. Sensing a lack of resolve in North America and Europe to stop him, Putin may have been trying all along to scare NATO into granting him concessions. The Biden administration has been talking about reorienting U.S. military posture toward Asia, making Russia a second priority to China—a position Putin clearly resents, but also wishes to exploit. Ukraine has renewed its bid to join NATO, and a China-focused United States might have appeared more likely to promise this would never happen.
The Biden administration, to its credit, has for the most part done a good job of increasing the cost of such a war for Russia, and making those high costs clear to Putin. The combination of rallying allies, threatening tough new sanctions, and sending more materiel to the Ukrainian military all helped.
2. Putin needs the war to be won before 2024.
That year will, in some ways, be the most important year in Putin’s life since becoming president in 1999. He will, for the first time in Russian history, be up for re-election for a consecutive third term, effectively making him dictator for life. Though elections are manipulated in Russia, and though the press is his propaganda machine, Putin still needs a central theme to the grand legitimization/coronation ritual. In 2014, the annexation of Crimea provided the perfect centerpiece, and Putin (and those around him) might figure that tearing off another piece of Ukraine would have a similar effect.
3. The current war is becoming too expensive.
The war in Ukraine is unpopular in Russia. Unlike the Russian intervention in Syria—primarily an air-based offensive, many of the ground forces were private (or semi-private) military contractors as opposed to Russian conscripts, the “enemy” (who were often civilians) were culturally dissimilar people, and the whole thing was far away—the war in Ukraine is a slow-grinding ground campaign in which Russian fatalities are being buried in theater rather than sent home, likely in an effort to dampen the political salience of the human cost of the war. Furthermore, Ukrainians and Russians are culturally kindred people, as Putin himself attests. Russians don’t like that their military is killing their brethren. The longer the killing of Ukrainians continues, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the war.
The war is also financially expensive, largely because of the sanctions Russia has suffered as a result. It has seriously damaged the Russian economy, and the welfare of the Russian people has deteriorated as a result.
The current war also costs a lot in terms of prestige. Russia has been fighting a stalemate in Ukraine for eight years, and it doesn’t look good on the leader—or the political system—when mighty Russia cannot win a war against welterweight Ukraine.
There is also an explanation for why Putin chose this particular moment: In August, Russia and Belarus, which seems to be a willing partner in Putin’s crime, participated in the quadrennial Zapad military exercise and assessed their capabilities against their enemy to their west. Having a sense of their capabilities—and perhaps even encouraged by them—now they can enter a conventional war against Ukraine and bring it to a favorable conclusion before the 2024 election.
4. Putin wants the Russian empire back.
Just because the United States claimed victory in the Cold War doesn’t mean the Russians conceded defeat. Imperialist impulses run deep in the veins of the Russian security establishment. Even Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, considered his country, the Russian Federation, as having helped topple the Soviet Union, not as inheritor of its failure. Putin has repeatedly accused the West of “robbing” Russia at the end of the Cold War—hence his interest in relitigating it.
More specifically, Russia has extraordinary claims over Belarus and Ukraine. All three speak Eastern Slavic languages with high mutual intelligibility, and every tsar since Peter the Great bore the title “Tsar of all the Russias”—i.e. Great Russia (Russia), Little Russia (Ukraine), and White Russia (Belarus).
Further, the Russian Orthodox Church has been grieving over the split of the church between Moscow and Kyiv when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly (independence) and jurisdiction over Ukraine in 2018. The church in Kyiv retains important value for Russian Orthodox Christians—the reunification of the two churches, as well as the two peoples, will strengthen Putin’s footing domestically, but it will also be an important symbolic achievement in restoring the Russian empire.
Infamously, Putin said that whoever doesn’t miss the Soviet Union doesn’t have a heart. He doesn’t miss the empty store shelves, communal apartments, and hollow ideological sloganeering, but he does miss the glory of its empire—as do many other Russians.
5. Putin wants access to the Black Sea.
Without Eastern Ukraine, Russia doesn’t have access to the Black Sea, which is both commercially and militarily important to Russia: Fishing is a key industry for the Russian economy, and access to the Black Sea enables the Russian Navy to threaten NATO’s southern flank and easily reach North Africa and the Middle East. Put another way, with access to the Black Sea, the Russian sphere of influence will no longer be limited to Eastern Europe but also Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
The annexation of Crimea somewhat expanded Russia’s access to the Black Sea (on which Russia already had its own ports and cities), but Russia doesn’t have direct and immediate access to Crimea. Russia even had to build a 23-mile bridge over the Kerch Strait—the longest bridge in Russia’s history—to allow vehicles to pass between Russia and Crimea without crossing into Ukraine. Put another way, in Putin’s mind, Crimea is both indispensable but indefensible.
These explanations of Putin’s motives are not mutually exclusive, nor exclusive of other possible motivations. The mind of an autocrat is always difficult to read, especially one who matured as a KGB officer and who has been isolated from dissenting views for two decades. The best prescription in such a situation is often to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. More often than not, doing the former will result in the latter.